Empathize With Your Political Foe

Hank Newsome, head of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, last year. He was cheered in October at a rally in Washington organized by Trump supporters.

Sept. 16, 2017, had the potential to be an awful day on the National Mall in Washington. It started with a rally, organized by a group of Trump supporters, called the Mother of All Rallies Patriot Unification Gathering. Counterprotesters from a group called Black Lives Matter of Greater New York began shouting at the crowd. The event’s organizers shouted back, and the two sides began moving toward each other. As the situation became more combustible, onlookers recorded the scene on their phones.

Suddenly, however, the confrontation took an unexpected turn. Tommy Gunn, the organizer of the pro-Trump rally, invited Hawk Newsome, the head of the Black Lives Matter group and the leader of the counterdemonstration, onto the stage. “We’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out,” Mr. Gunn said. “Whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message.”

Mr. Newsome accepted the invitation and addressed the hostile crowd with evident sincerity. “I am an American,” he said. “And the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.”

When someone in the crowd shouted, “All lives matter!” Mr. Newsome responded: “You’re right, my brother, you’re right. You are so right. All lives matter, right? But when a black life is lost, we get no justice. That is why we say black lives matter. If we really want to make America great, we do it together.”

Credit...Rex Features, via Associated Press

The hostility dissipated. By the end of his brief address, many people were cheering for Mr. Newsome. Video shows demonstrators in friendly interactions. Mr. Newsome posed for pictures with a Trump rallier’s kids.

Did the two sides reach agreement on policy or President Trump? Doubtlessly not. Yet something more profound happened: They saw each other as people. This is an increasingly rare occurrence in our country; we have become skilled at avoiding practically all interaction with those with whom we disagree. We can live in neighborhoods, pick workplaces, choose universities and design our news exposure in a way that feeds ideological ghettoization and identity politics. It separates us as people and reduces others (and thus ourselves) to disembodied demographic characteristics.

Add to this the toxic anonymity of virtual interaction through social media, and we have the ingredients for a culture polarized by the perception that we are good and virtuous, while they are inhuman and evil. The law professor John A. Powell (a friend with whom I have collaborated) calls this “othering” and has shown that it leads to hatred and discrimination.

But on the odd occasion that people are exposed to each other as people, as at the rally in Washington, othering is hard to maintain. And that is the rare moment when human compassion and empathy can break out.

This phenomenon is well documented in social science research. In a canonical 1934 study, the sociologist Richard LaPiere traveled the United States with a Chinese couple, observing the service they received at 251 hotels and restaurants. His objective was to see how people treated them at a time when racism against Chinese people was common and overt. To his surprise, Professor LaPiere found that the couple was denied service only once.

But that wasn’t the most surprising part of the study. Afterward, Professor LaPiere sent questionnaires to all 251 establishments to ask whether they would serve “members of the Chinese race.” Among all the responses, only one establishment said it would; 92 percent said they would not; the rest were uncertain.

We often assume that people are less bigoted in theory than they are in practice. The LaPiere experiment shows just the opposite: People are more hostile to others in the abstract than when they meet them in person. This explains many phenomena, including the endorsement of gay rights that often occurs when people realize they have gay relatives and colleagues.

So what can we do to make compassion and empathy less rare and random in America today? Be like Tommy Gunn, and without repudiating your own views, invite the “other” onto your stage (whatever your stage is). Be like Hawk Newsome and go where people are hostile and tell them what is in your heart. Reject the homogeneity and anonymity of social networks.

Let’s go even further and make this into a national movement of American renewal. Celebrate leaders who go where they ordinarily wouldn’t be welcome. Support institutions dedicated to a respectful competition of ideas. Patronize news outlets that find ways to combat anonymous hatred, no matter how profitable that hatred is.

Sound crazy? Watch the rally for yourself (video can be found on YouTube). It might just be possible.

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